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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Fri Aug 18 07:05:41 2000
Date: Wed, 16 Aug 2000 23:36:04 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: RIGHTS-TRINIDAD & TOBAGO: Child Abandonment Takes Centre-stage
Article: 102753
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Child Abandonment Takes Centre-stage

By Wesley Gibbings, IPS, 14 August 2000

Port of Spain, Aug 14 (IPS) - When Jeffrey Alexander went to tie his goats in a poor south Trinidad village a week ago, little did he know that his find would stir a vigorous nationwide debate on the incidence of child abandonment and its possible causes.

Alexander at first thought that the tiny, bloodied figure in front of him was a dead wild animal, but quickly realised that it was, in fact, a barely-alive new-born baby.

Now, "Precious", as the baby girl has come to be known on the paediatric ward of the San Fernando General Hospital, has invoked everything from the integrity of the social welfare system to questions of race to complex legal arguments.

For, even as medical officials at the hospital were contending that the baby's survival had been a minor miracle, the impoverished mother of the child was exclaiming that anyone who wanted the child "could take it."

The police promptly arrested the baby's grandmother, 61 year old Hazra Ali, and charged her with child abandonment. Her daughter, 27 year old Agatha Ali, is recovering in hospital from the crude home delivery and is also expected to be charged.

"For many," says orphan home supervisor Debra Griffith, "it's a choice between abortion and abandonment."

Griffith suggests that fear of social ostracism is very strong among poor, young women "who don't want to be branded as yet another woman giving birth to yet another unwanted child."

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Social Development Sashtri Ali, says it is a combination of factors including poverty, illiteracy and "the breakdown of the extended family."

"That (the extended family) is at the base of everything," she says. "Unless people start caring for each other again we are going nowhere."

"It is a fact, especially in cases where poverty is prevalent, that people focus on their own circumstances and less on the plight of others," Ali says.

Family life educator, Ann Ayers, who works with the Family Planning Association (FPA), says it is clear that a lack of knowledge of the options available to young women is a big part of the problem.

"What we are dealing with are people who don't have access to the messages of the mass media, people outside of the system," she says. "We can't wait on them to come to us, we have to go to them."

The smiling face of the recovering baby on the front page of one local daily has meanwhile activated a high number of prospective foster parents. In response, the Social Welfare Division of the Ministry of Social Development has set up a contact line for interested persons.

"I will give my baby to anyone who wants her," Agatha told one reporter. But this is easier said than done.

The country's cumbersome adoption regulations often make the process anything but a short-term one.

An easier process would be to place the child in foster care though the Ministry of Social Development in which case the mother of the child would have to show that she was destitute and unable to care for the child.

"It could be," says Griffith, "that these women did not know what they could have done with the child."

"The real problem is that sometimes society condemns people affected by these things," she says, "and this creates a mind- set which says - I don't want to be like that'. Then what they do is to try to have a backroom abortion or hide until they can abandon the child at one of the institutions."

At the moment, there are close to a dozen children admitted to hospitals in the country by parents who have vanished.

Ayers says the social support system ought to create more "youth- friendly" centres where young people can come in and talk about their problems.

The Ali case also has the added dimension of race. Outrage over the incident intensified last week with word that the child was left to die on the banks of the Gasparillo river because she was the product of a mixed-race encounter.

Interviewed by a reporter, Agatha said her relatives had disapproved of her relationship with the father of the child because "he is not East Indian."

"He used to give me money to help me pay the bills," she said. I love him, but my relatives did not care for him."

The alleged father is a 66 year old gardener of African origin. The Alis are East Indian Muslims.

Then, there is the legal dimension. One senior attorney has suggested that the police could have taken even stronger action. Israel Khan, who heads the country's Legal Aid system, tells IPS the women could have been charged with attempted murder.

The child abandonment charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Khan, however, contends the circumstances of the case could have precluded Agatha from such prosecution.

Hazra was granted bail by a magistrate last week but, according to her lawyer Subhas Panday, this was hardly consolation for a woman who was experiencing "some very hard times." He said the woman was the recipient of public assistance and had been the victim of domestic violence prior to the recent death of her husband.

Many have concluded that the issue will not go away very soon, even after the legal issues are settled in court.



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